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Deciding whether to reupholster or buy a new piece

If you've ever furnished a house or an apartment, it's highly likely you've asked yourself this question: Should I reupholster or buy something new?

Unfortunately, there is no quick answer. What kind of shape the furniture is in, how much new fabric you'll need and how much the fabric will cost are a few things that should be considered before making the decision. There is also the cost of labor, which varies because there is no industry standard.

A reputable upholsterer should be able to provide potential customers with specific answers to all questions, including a final price, after seeing a piece of furniture in person.

As with any professional you are considering hiring, when searching for an upholsterer, do thorough comparison shopping. Ask relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbors if they have a recommendation. Visit an upholsterer's workroom to look at the quality of his or her work. Ask for references, and call them.

Most important, keep in mind that reupholstering isn't necessarily less expensive than buying something new.

"It's going to be comparable to a new piece of furniture because you are essentially getting a new piece of furniture," says Mark Walker, a manager at Calico Corners fabric store in Rockville, Md. "It's the same frame, but otherwise a new piece."

We contacted upholsterers and asked them the questions we hear most often.

>Q: Should I reupholster or buy something new?

A: While there are high-end exceptions, our experts agreed that much of the furniture manufactured today isn't well-made and not worth the cost of reupholstering.

Walker offers this advice: "We recommend reupholstering if a piece has sentimental value or if it's an heirloom; if it's the perfect size to fit a specific space; or if it's unique or something you love and you won't be able to replace. If it doesn't fall into any of those categories, we suggest buying a new piece."

>Q: How can I tell if my furniture is good quality?

A: The short answer: Older is better. "Anything that is at least 15 to 20 years old," says George Spicer of Spicer's Upholstery in Alexandria, Va., "If it was going to fall apart, it would have by now."

Coil springs and solid wood are also indications of something well-made, says Michael Goncalves of Jose Goncalves & Sons Interiors in Arlington, Va. To check for coil springs, he says, remove the seat cushions and press your hand down on the seat.

"If it feels like coil springs, it's probably a decent piece and worth considering reupholstering," he says.

>Q: How do I find a good upholsterer?

A: Having a referral from a family member or friend is the best way to search for an upholsterer. Also check with your neighborhood email discussion group and consumer sites, such as Consumers' Checkbook, then visit the workrooms of the names you've gathered.

Good questions to ask upholsterers include: How long has the company been in business? Can you see examples of their work? Is your piece worth upholstering? How much are pickup and delivery charges? What is the turnaround time? Do they remove existing fabric?

Even if an upholsterer answers yes to the last question, Goncalves recommends taking it a step further: Request that they save the old fabric for you. "You can throw it away as soon as you get home, but it's always a good thing to ask so you can be assured that the job has been done."

Goncalves speaks from experience. He recently reupholstered a sofa for a client that had four layers of fabric underneath the top layer. "I saved it all to show my customer," he said. "She had no idea."

>Q: How much does it cost to have a sofa or chair reupholstered?

A: So many factors go into figuring out a price that it's impossible for an upholsterer to provide an exact estimate without seeing a piece in person.

Some factors that determine price include: the size of the piece, its condition and the style. For example: How many seat cushions does it have? (More cushions cost more.) Is it a loose back or tight back? (A loose back will cost more.)

For a sofa, the starting price range for the upholsterers we spoke to ran $700 to $1,200, not including fabric; to have a dining chair seat re-covered, the starting range was $45 to $90, not including fabric.

>Q: How much fabric will I need?

A: The amount of fabric depends on the size and style of the furniture, whether the fabric chosen is a solid or a pattern (you'll need more with a pattern), the number of cushions and pillows needed and any extras, such as adding a skirt.